- Agony and Eloquence: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and a World of Revolution by Daniel L. Mallock
The friendship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson—created during the American Revolution, disrupted by the French Revolution, and resumed in retirement—often serves as a framework for the history of the Founding era. Daniel L. Mallock explores this theme for a general audience in Agony and Excellence: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and a World of Revolution. For Mallock, the Adams-Jefferson friendship best explains the two figures, and their correspondence reveals "two great men who had reached the height of their intellectual and emotional development and who … set a pattern of understanding, acceptance, and forgiveness that ranks their letters as a monument to human compassion and grace" (p. 14).
Having set up the Adams-Jefferson correspondence as a main theme, Mallock abandons it in favor of the impact of the French Revolution on their [End Page 403] friendship. Mallock focuses on the Adams and Jefferson presidencies, the period of the least contact between the two, and which they studiously ignored in their later correspondence. What follows is an uneven narrative. The author makes several, often repetitive, passes at the 1790s; Adams and Jefferson disappear for much of chapter 3; and the author includes long digressions on topics such as the return of Thomas Paine and the medical career of Benjamin Rush.
In a decision more damaging to the work, Mallock places the Adams-Jefferson split at 1797. He does not mention the 1790 publication of Adams's series of newspaper essays, Discourses on Davila, which started the chain reaction leading to their estrangement, until about a quarter of the way through the text. Mallock leaves the audience with the odd impression that the two were on good terms until Adams was elected president. At various points Mallock refers to Adams and Jefferson having an initial shared enthusiasm for the French Revolution, even though Adams was one of its earliest American critics.
Mallock's choice of 1797 as the key date leads one to question his grasp of the history of the early republic. The book has numerous errors and questionable interpretations. Mallock discusses the proposal to send Jefferson to France in 1797 mainly in the context of Jefferson's friendship with Adams, but the idea was in wide circulation among Federalist leaders. Mallock describes Jefferson's embargo and Adams's navy buildup as similar policies, when in fact they were polar opposites. Mallock also has a tendency to fall into the clichéd formulation of the Federalists as realists and Republicans as idealists. Mallock's view of Jefferson is contradictory. The author defends Jefferson against the charge of bloodthirsty extremism, but later he observes that Jefferson had a "more forgiving" view of the violence of the French Revolution, as the Virginian was prepared to accept a number of casualties, including his friendship with Adams, to see it succeed (p. 219).
In the end, Mallock's work appears to be one intended for moral instruction. He mentions Daniel Webster's 1826 oration on the deaths of Adams and Jefferson. The purpose of such orations was often to smooth over political differences and make the Founding era speak with one voice. Mallock tends to do this as well, and he describes the Adams-Jefferson correspondence as a triumph of friendship over politics. This is a noble sentiment. For Webster, it was good politics. It does not, however, make for good history.